Wednesday, November 30, 2011

U.S. society slipping beneath respect for the dignity of the individual

Editorial, New York Times, November 29, 2011
The Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that it is unconstitutional to execute mentally retarded criminals, finding that the death penalty cannot be justified for these offenders because they are morally less culpable.

The court left it to the states to determine how to apply that constitutional restriction. Georgia has chosen to undermine the court’s principled ruling. It is the only state to require that offenders prove they are mentally retarded beyond a reasonable doubt, a procedural threshold that is extremely difficult to reach. In a 7-to-4 ruling last week, the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit unwisely upheld this Georgia standard. The Supreme Court should review that decision and strike down this intolerable burden of proof.
The Supreme Court’s 2002 ruling applies to people whose intellectual functioning is subaverage (mainly with an I.Q. of 70 or below), who are limited in communicating, caring for themselves and other adaptive skills and who show these traits before they are 18. In the Georgia case of Warren Lee Hill Jr., Mr. Hill’s I.Q. of 77 was found to meet the threshold, but he was unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that his adaptive skills were impaired.
Judgments about mental impairment are necessarily based on subjective interpretations of behavior. The Supreme Court has noted how hard it is to prove this kind of mental condition beyond a reasonable doubt. Proof turns on expert testimony, and an effective opposing expert can raise doubt. That is why, of the 33 other states with the death penalty, 28 use a lower standard of proof for mental retardation.
The appellate court contends that the Supreme Court has never “suggested, much less held, that a burden of proof standard on its own can so wholly burden an Eighth Amendment right as to eviscerate or deny that right.” But when the court ruled that the Eighth Amendment prohibits execution of the mentally retarded, it made plain that states cannot weaken that protection with an unfair procedural standard. In this and other ways, Georgia’s death penalty subverts the Constitution and is further evidence that capital punishment should be abolished.
Not only do we agree with the NYT Editorial, we suggest that the kind of society that is developing in the U.S. is one in which the dignity of the individual human being is less and less protected by the state. Georgia, for example, in attempting to subvert the Supreme Court decision prohibiting the death penalty for intellectually challenged individuals, is signalling to the world not only its support for the death penalty, but also that support extends to those least able to comprehend their actions and the implications of those actions. Being able to demonstrate "beyond a reasonable doubt" that one's intellectual capacity is impaired is not only empirically impossible; it is also an extremely unreasonable standard for any individual regardless of intellectual capacity or impairment.
  • When workers are nothing more than chattels in a corporation, another piece of the raw material used in production, without regard to minimal health and safety standards and protection
  • When mothers and fathers have to decide between feeding their children and buying the prescription drugs that an ill family member requires
  • When fathers drive their teen-age children around in junk-vans, moving from place to place every night, to avoid detection by the authorities, because they have no home, having lost the state supported motel rooms, and all hope of legitimate income (se 60 Minutes, November 27, 2011)
  • When children are forced to take part-time work to help pay family bills, because their parents cannot find work
  • When the incomes of those at the top so far outstrip those at the bottom of the income scale
We all know that individuals simply have slid off the radar screen of public consciousness, public debate, and thereby public support.
And that kind of society will not sustain itself; it will crumble in its own narcissistic ashes...and very soon!

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